In This Review

Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
By Witold Szablowski
256 pp, Penguin Books, 2018

Welcome to the Wild East. First, there are Bulgarian Gypsies with dancing bears. Then there is a Polish village whose inhabitants dress up as Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, along with Gandalf, played by a woman, and Gollum—in private life a farmer who receives European Union subsidies. There are hundreds of thousands of communist-era bunkers in Albania, some of them now being demolished by men in search of rebar. Meanwhile, a Serbian remembers being “treated” by the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade, where the notorious war criminal was in hiding, disguised in a ponytail and beard and pretending to be a faith healer: “At one point he told me that cosmic energy came to him via the hair and beard.” And to cap it all off, a Georgian woman dreams of Joseph Stalin visiting her at night: “He gazes at me, puffs on his pipe, and twirls his moustache. He smiles, and then heads for the door. Then I weep and cry for him to stay.”

Dancing Bears, the latest book by the Polish journalist Witold Szablowski, is never dull. This is Tom Wolfe meets Franz Kafka, or perhaps a Milan Kundera remake of

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  • TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
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